Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1154, (27 June - 3 July 2013)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1154, (27 June - 3 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Sectarian hanging

A lynching of Shia prompts new fears over religious rights and freedoms in Egypt under Morsi, Dina Ezzat reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

“People are really scared. They are not sure what would happen to them and whether they would be attacked. They are terrified,” said Bahaa Mohamed, an Egyptian Shia activist.

Mohamed was referring to Egyptian Shia families whose number is said to be anywhere between a few hundred to a few thousand. He was speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly hours after the prosecution had demanded the arrest of 15 Egyptians suspected of attacking an Egyptian Shia cleric in a village of Giza which turned into a shocking incident of lynching four Egyptian citizens strictly on a sectarian basis.

Earlier this week, a group of men who are known for their hatred of the Shia sect decided to physically attack and terminate a Muslim cleric, Hassan Shehata, allegedly for attempting to spread the Shia sect in an otherwise predominantly Sunni village of Abul Nomross.

The lynching came in the wake of repeated verbal harassment and threats against Shehata, his relatives and other “suspected” Shia in the village. It also came after yet another unprecedented high-level state sectarian incitement against the Shia during a massive rally of followers of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis who gathered at the Cairo Stadium two weeks ago in the presence of President Mohamed Morsi who is faced with unprecedented waves of national contempt, nominally to express support to the Sunnis in Syria in the face of the massacres by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, an Alawite.

In his speech Morsi was uncompromising in his attack of the support granted by the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah to Al-Assad’s regime — an otherwise celebrated anti-Israeli resistance movement — and to Iran, the leading Shia nation in the Middle East, that Egypt had previously tried to befriend. During the rally, qualified by Morsi’s critics as an attempt to scare off opposition from the expected nationwide protests on 30 June that would call for early presidential elections, some of the clerics participating with statements went so far as to qualify Shias as infidels.

“We all know that it is enough for some of the followers of this cleric that someone is qualified as an infidel for him to be attacked and massacred with a presumed religious licence,” Mohamed said. He added the fact that this qualification was thrown in the face of Egyptian Shia in the presence of the head of the state “who promised to be, but never was, a president who represents the interests of all Egyptians. It was more of a licence to kill the Shia wherever they might be found.”

Mohamed, who is a director of the Fatimid Egypt Centre, was planning a press conference to be held as the Weekly went to press. “In this conference we will openly hold Morsi responsible for the lynching of Shehata and other Egyptian citizens strictly on a sectarian basis and we would call on the state that has turned a blind eye to the attack on these citizens to make sure that the Abul Nomross catastrophe does not hit another Egyptian Shia,” he said.

Mohamed declined to share his assessment of the Shia in Egypt and insisted that, morally and legally speaking, the state is obliged to provide equal protection for all citizens without any religious or sectarian discrimination. “This was not the case because as we were calling the police to run to rescue Shehata our demand for help was shrugged off and the police only arrived when it was too late,” he said.

Prime Minister Hisham Kandil denounced the attack but offered no recognition of any state responsibility towards this unprecedented lynching incident that prompted the furore of activists and opposition leaders who were all making statements to express outrage and to demand state intervention to stop the flow of incitement and hatred.

National and international human rights organisations issued statements demanding Morsi to act to contain what many of them called an unprecedented level of sectarian violence.

In the analysis of Mohamed, the incitement against religious minorities, especially within the Muslim quarters, is likely to increase rather than decrease on the road to 30 June. He argued that “showing contempt towards Shia and Sufis” is something that “Morsi and the rest of the Brotherhood are doing to garner much needed support to face widescale contempt that would materialise on 30 June”.

Complaints of harassment have indeed been coming in from the Sufi quarter in Egypt during the past year. Sufi mosques and domes have been burnt down repeatedly, allegedly by Salafis.

Salafis had spoken openly against the Sufi moulids and have protested repeatedly against the authorisation of the state to allow tourists from Iran, who had condemned the lynching, to come to Egypt — suggesting that this would allow the expansion of the number of Shia in Egypt.

Ashraf Thabet, a leader of an otherwise heterogeneous Salafi quarter in Egypt, said, “Salafis are not involved in any bigotry or incitement. We are convinced that Shia and Sufis divert from the true path of Islam and that their creed is not correct. This does not mean that we call for the killing of Shia or Sufis or that we are associated with the burning of their houses and mosques and domes but we are responsible to tell everybody that they should not be following them.”

Like the case with Shia, there are no clear numbers indicating the followers of the many Sufi schools in Egypt. However, while there is a Shia school that is acknowledged to be “religiously correct” by Al-Azhar, the strongest Islamic establishment in Egypt, the current Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb himself is a Sufi who is firmly disliked by the Muslim Brotherhood, as by the Salafis.

This week, harsh criticism was voiced against the lynching by Al-Tayeb, who had already opposed the attack and incitement of pro-Muslim Brotherhood clergymen during the Syria conference and in a consequent gathering last Friday for Morsi followers.

“The fact of the matter is that the voices of criticism are not good in and by themselves to fix the huge problem of religious sectarianism that we have been dealing with,” said Ishak Ibrahim, coordinator of the Egyptian Initiative for Private Rights.

According to Ibrahim, the Abul Nomross incident did not come against a backdrop of a dispute over anything — “as the case often is with attacks on Copts in the wake of a fight over a small daily matter here or there; no, this is sectarian killing of the first order.”

For Ibrahim, it is hard to overlook the fact that this unprecedented lynching came only a few months following the equally unprecedented attack on the Coptic Cathedral, another episode of the saga of attacks on Copts that has been unfolding for the past few years prior to the 25 January Revolution.

“We have been having sectarian and religious problems here and there for a long time,” Ibrahim said. “It happened and it will happen but what is new now is the fact that the head of the state seems to directly associate himself with this kind of sectarian hatred and incitement. What is also new is that we now have a constitution with a language that lends itself to diverse interpretations on religious freedoms. We need to have these problems fixed. We need to avoid slipping deeper into an abyss of sectarianism. I fear that we have to act promptly.”

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